The Webcomic Overlook #115: Rice Boy
I was first introduced to Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy about a year ago. Everything I’d read were nothing but highly positive reviews, gushing with unfettered praise. Yet, after reading the first couple of pages, I sadly didn’t feel all that compelled to check it out.
The opening scenes look like something straight out of the comic section in a mid-90’s alt-weekly. It’s one-on-one conversation at a bar, where the patrons are some of the strangest looking hombres around. One character looks like a featureless Grateful Dead bear. The other, which has a flashlight for a head that projects still images of movies and cartoons on his round face, is even more unsettling. Plus the bartender was some sort rejected character design from Klasky Csupo’s Aaahh!!! Real Monsters! cartoon. It’s the outsider look that someone like file under other‘s Shannon Smith would love. But me? Those stylistic flourishes actually turn me off somewhat.
Plus, there’s that “-” in the URL. I don’t know about you, but I’m psychologically predisposed to pooh-pooh anything with a “-” in the URL.
But then I reviewed Order of Tales and loved it. It turns out that Evan Dahm’s style was far more approachable than I initially suspected. At the same time, readers started to strongly insist that I pick up the far more heralded companion piece. (So strongly, in fact, that even Mr. Dahm noticed: “…it still seems like more people got excited about Rice Boy? But I don’t care because OoT will be the best comic I have ever done ever.”) So I decided to give Rice Boy another whirl, now buoyed by the bonhomie of the readers and my good experiences with Dahm’s world of Overside thus far.
Rice Boy ran from April 2006 to May 2008. The story, according the Wikipedia entry, begun as an exercise in surrealism, but end up unfolding into the familiar rhythms of a fantasy epic. While it is possible to sense the focus shifting from one theme to the next, what’s remarkable is that the transition is seamless and the change unnoticeable unless you were looking for them.
We follow the separate yet intertwined destinies of two different characters. Our title character, Rice Boy, is a little guy who looks like a salt-shaker with eyes. Despite his name, I don’t think that he’s actually made of rice. In terms of an epic fantasy structure, he’s the proverbial poor country pig farmer type. He’s sweetly innocent — the sort of guy who would be incredibly happy with his unremarkable life if a supernatural guide from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth didn’t show up.
The One Electronic (or “T-O-E”) is Rice Boy’s spotlight-faced Gandalf: a wisened, legendary character who has lived many untold years. He’s more urbane, though, as evidenced by he preference for cigarettes over pipes for smoking the halfling leaf. He visits Rice Boy in his home, a remote little cabin surrounded by plant life that look like cotton swabs. He tells Rice Boy that he’s on a mission from God, and Rice Boy is the latest candidate for the role of Fulfiller. The prophecy that Rice Boy will fulfill is vague at first. T-O-E even has a hard time believing int: he’s gotten so jaded from 3,000 years of fake Fulfillers that he’s not too confident that the prophecy is even true. Yet T-O-E presses on, because what is he if he’s not a faithful servant of the gods?
Rice Boy originally rejects his calling, thinking that he’s too meek and too small to be a Fulfiller. But, after a frustrated T-O-E leaves, Rice Boy abruptly decides that fate is inevitable and sets out on a journey on his own. I sorta liked how Rice Boy set off without any outside stimulus beyond the power of suggestion. You get the sense that responsibility (and, perhaps, destiny) set the little guy on his path.
Meanwhile, a mysterious, cold-hearted killer for hire named Golgo is set to hunt down both T-O-E and Rice Boy. He wears an eye-patch over one eye, which covers a flying, mechanical eyeball that he uses for surveillance. Golgo is on a mission from Spatch II, the son of the previous Fulfiller. His father, Spatch I, was given the role of Fulfiller officially by T-O-E on the merits of the noble works done by his father. But Spatch I let the power of the title go to his head, and eventually abused the role of Fulfiller. Spatch II rules in the same manner as his father, corrupting the title of Fulfiller as an excuse to spread fear and hatred throughout the land. It is in his vested interest that the Prophesy not come true, as that might mean an end to his power.
There’s definitely a commentary on organized religion and the abuses of power hiding under the thinly veiled surface of Rice Boy. Judging from his papal robes, Spatch II most likely represents the Catholic Church in an era where the officials were more concerned about matters more worldly and political than spiritual. Rice Boy is dense and heavily layered with meaning.
What does it mean to be a Fulfiller?
Is the prophesy worth the lives it consumes, both figuratively and literally?
Is the notion that one soul can save an entire people ultimately one born of selfishness?
What do the tiny Trill-Folk, who are the physical manifestion of the power that once encompassed all Overside, and their powerful yet symbolic language represent on a mystical level?
Rice Boy may be the only webcomic in the world that deserves the sort of highly detailed, meticulous in-depth analysis of a senior level thesis paper — or, better yet, a full fledged wiki. However, Rice Boy remains a compelling narrative even when judged under the less ambitious standards of a fantasy adventure.
On his journey, Rice Boy encounters strange-looking folk of all shapes and sizes. And when I mean all shapes and sizes, I do mean all shapes and sizes. Some look vaguely human. Others take on the familiar forms of anthropomorphic animals. But you’ll just as likely run into characters that look like animated tentacles or jumbles of random shapes.
Interestingly, the simplicity of the designs do tend to make the violent scenes — which are less gory than what you’d find in other comics — to be more psychologically unnerving. This is partially due to the cartoony nature designs: violent scenes here are akin to seeing, say, Charlie Brown get decapitated. It more unexpected, distressing.
Plus, the simple character designs means we readers tend to focus on the features that are presented. This is especially true of Rice Boy himself. While it sounds silly on paper, I found the scenes where Rice Boy is bawling his eyes out — the only visible facial feature on the character — to be deeply affecting.
The characters Rice Boy meets are not all as friendly as Gerund, a portly traveling companion who sorta becomes his Samwise Gamgee. Some are slightly unsettling yet ultimately helpful, such as the Tree-Keeper and its walking abode who helpfully informs Rice Boy the prophecy he’s supposed to fulfill. Some are less unsettling yet unhelpful, such as the unfriendly people with mask-like faces and furry bodies and the highly cultured people of Seen. Others, such as the denizens of the Lonely Land, are both unsettling and unhelpful and are nothing but a terror on our heroes.
Rice Boy eventually meets Parod, a wise old man who lives atop a mountain in the middle of the desert. Rice Boy can finally sit down a spell after having endured a series of tribulations where he’s seen things that have changed his soul forever. He learns more about the source of the prophecy, and the truth about how some things people fear are really blessings in disguise. However, more importantly, he learns that the destiny of the Fulfiller is to die.
Meanwhile, T-O-E’s got problems of his own. Interestingly, while Rice Boy is pulled into a story of cosmic proportions, T-O-E’s story becomes increasingly personal. He goes through a crisis of faith. After he leaves the company of Rice Boy, he discovers that Calabash, his friend for an eternity, is dead. His faith in his mission, which had steadily eroded over the years, is shattered. It’s the dilemma of an agnostic: he knows that a deity exists, yet he’s unconvinced that the deity is doing the right thing when it seems that he has none of T-O-E’s own interests in mind.
After journeying to Memoar to get a peek at Rice Boy’s weird origin story, T-O-E takes a look at his own painful past. The failure to save his young brother from being carried away by a giant beast gnaws at his soul, a pain that he cannot let go. Nevertheless, T-O-E pushes forward to see the prophecy arrive at its inevitable conclusion. He rejoines his own kin, the Machine Men, at their homeland of The Black Teeth in order to prepare for the Fulfiller’s War.
Dahm’s surreal imagery, easily the most striking and unique aspect of Rice Boy, is very hard to describe. It’s both familiar, yet unsettling. Dahm remixes everyday elements in Rice Boy and recontextualizes them to strange and novel purposes. There’s a scene where a horse-like being pops out like an inflatable toy from the inside of a box, which in turn becomes the head. There are times when a plant-like key grows like a weed out of someone’s fingernail. Dahm does similar things in Order of Tales, but there giant shell cities and Bottle Women felt like a natural evolution of the high fantasy scenario. Here, we’re jarred by the ineffable other-ness of it all.
The landscapes bristle with a sort of living surrealness. Field, glen, and ford seem organic to an uncomfortable degree. I’m strongly reminded of Peter Chung’s work in Aeon Flux, where the world at places writhes and contracts like the inside of a human body. Eyes are integrated into the architecture. Severed hands fall from bloody wrists and transform into modes of transportation.
In the end, what was Rice Boy about? Everything’s open to interpretation in a comic this deeply symbolic. Yet, I think in the end it all boils down to the age old question of destiny versus free will. Those opposing the journey of Rice Boy represent free will: they believe that humanity has the power to manipulate things to their own ends, and very often their own ends are for self-serving reasons. However, the journey toward finding the Third Avatar is destiny. It’s not merely a tower. It’s a fundamental shift in the entire global culture. This cannot be controlled. Perhaps, even if someone did succeed in stopping Rice Boy, someone else would eventually fulfill the prophesy because humanity only has so much power over the march of time.
You know what else? I couldn’t put it down. Rice Boy had me hungrily devouring page after page until I finally reached the incredible conclusion. That’s one of the perks with reading a fully completed webcomic: you know that the entire story is finished, so all the while you anticipate how the endgame will play out.
By the time I reached the end, I realized that the critics were right: Rice Boy is fantastic. It’s the most masterful and gripping webcomic I have ever read. In retrospect, I am going to have to revise the Best Webcomics of the Decade list yet again to make room for this comic.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)